Friday, February 27, 2009

Tooch tussles with the cops over speed cameras

As promised, I'm going head-to-head in the pages of the Arizona Republic with the Arizona Department of Public Safety (which includes the highway patrol) over the desirability of using photo-radar enforcement cameras to ticket speeders on the roads. The columns will provide a point/counterpoint in this Sunday's Viewpoints section of the Republic, but they're available online now.

Taking the "pro" speed camera position is Thomas Woodward, commander of the Arizona Department of Public Safety's photo-enforcement program. An excerpt:

The Arizona Department of Public Safety began its photo- enforcement program in November 2007, prior to the Legislature and governor enacting legislation calling for the current expanded program.

At the time, DPS supported the program using alternate funding because of its potential to save lives on Arizona highways. ...

The mobile systems being used on the Phoenix freeway system will increasingly be moved to outlying areas around the state to address serious injury and fatal collisions statewide. Mobile systems typically produce fewer citations than stationary systems. There are currently 42 mobile systems in operation.

Signaled intersections on state highways are being considered for photo enforcement because of the potential to reduce serious injury and fatal collisions. Like mobile systems, red light photo-enforcement systems also produce lower numbers of citations when compared to stationary speed systems.

While there continues to be a large amount of discussion about photo enforcement and the motives for its implementation, the Department of Public Safety remains committed to the statewide program for one simple reason: We believe it saves lives.

Full pro column is here.

Battling for the forces of all that is good and right, which is to say, taking the "anti" speed camera position, is yours truly.

Speed cameras can't be trusted, and neither can the people who operate them

With the move to ban speed cameras across Arizona gathering steam, opponents of automated speed traps should take a moment to nurse a few regrets. No, it's not because of second thoughts about the merits of camera-issued tickets.

Instead, we should mourn the receding opportunity to tape a copy of former Gov. Janet Napolitano's license plate over our own and whizz on down the highway for the benefit of the robotic revenue generators. ...

[N]ow we know that state officials and DPS have been using Arizona's speed cameras to produce continuous video records of cars passing by.

The records are supposedly destroyed after 90 days, but can we really trust officials who didn't bother telling us about the video to begin with to destroy data about our movements on the highways?

Dumb revenue machines that are easily fooled, often inaccurate, actually increase the frequency of some accidents, and that have been used to spy on us.

Why aren't all of us driving around with copies of Janet Napolitano's license plates?

Full anti column here.

Before you ask, I assume that the "good" before the headline of the DPS piece and the "evil" before the headline of my own will be prefaced by "Photo-radar speed cameras are ..." in the print edition.

That's both sides for you. Now share your opinion!

Nationalizing charities?

Over at Reason's Hit & Run, Jacob Sullum has already pointed out an interesting facet of President Obama's tax changes, but I think it's worth highlighting. From The Washington Times:
Democrats and Republicans poured cold water on President Obama's budget plan to cut down on wealthy taxpayers' charitable giving tax deductions, the second of his ambitious cost-savings plans to earn lawmakers' scorn, and underscoring the legislative minefield he is entering. ...

Roberton Williams, senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, said it's impossible to calculate the exact effects of all the tax changes, but said the overall result is clear - less philanthropic giving.

"This will lead people to give less to charities if they behave the way they've behaved in the past," he said. "We've already seen a drop in giving as a result of the economic collapse. On top of that, this will just reduce the amount of giving."

Asked about that, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag said Mr. Obama took care of that by giving charities government money to make up part of the difference.

"Contained in the recovery act, there's $100 million to support nonprofits and charities as we get through this period of economic difficulty," he said.
Not that I'm a huge fan of social engineering through the tax code, with a deduction for this, that and the other righteous cause to encourage us all to do supposedly good deeds. But isn't this a move toward cutting a major part of civil society -- private charitable organizations -- off from their sources of independent support and making them dependent on the good will of government officials?

Oh, and I'm sure the tax dollars will be directed by politicians to precisely the same recipients that each and every one of us would have chosen of our own free will ...

It's plausibly deniable, of course, since private individuals could keep giving at old rates and private organizations could refuse government money, but the overall effect will be to strengthen the power of the state without ever twisting an arm -- outside the oh-so-gentle enforcement of the tax code, of course.

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Arizona Taxpayer Tea Party--Friday, February 27

For all you Arizonans in the Valley of the Sun:

It's a tax and spending protest!

Join the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), allied pro-taxpayer organizations, and hundreds of taxpayer activists for an Arizona Taxpayer Tea Party, this Friday, February 27, at noon at the Tempe Beach Park to protest (and stop!) the tax increases proposed by big-spending politicians at the federal, state, and local levels. Wally the (Empty) Taxpayer Wallet will also be in attendance.

The meetup for the Tea Party is at 11:45 a.m. at the Tempe Beach Park, on the south side of the lake, west of the Mill Avenue Bridge. A parking lot is available next to the park, on Rio Salado Parkway.

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The real political divide: freedom vs. control

Pundits and politicians are playing the usual games with labels. President Barack Obama and his supporters are adherents of the "far left"; economists opposing the stimulus bill are partisans of the "extreme right." It's Team Blue vs. Team Red, with everybody expected to swallow the Kool-Aid proffered by one side or another. And it's all so pointless. The real division isn't between right and left; it's between the control freaks and the rest of us.

It's not that there aren't real ideological differences along the political spectrum -- there are. But left, right, up or down, there are activists who focus on ways of expanding freedom, and there are activists who focus on ways of extending government control over people's lives. They may put the emphasis on different issues and strongly disagree on specific policies, but ultimately, righties and lefties who emphasize freedom have more in common with one another t han they do with supposed comrades who are obsessed with control.

Nat Hentoff, the prominent writer and former columnist for the Village Voice, is a noted man of the left who is, therefore, supposed to be a loyal member of Team Blue. But in a recent newspaper column, he took President Obama to task for, among other things his secretiveness and his defense of warrantless wiretaps.

The flimflam candidate had assured his faithful enthusiasts that he would filibuster this bill (which will immunize the telecommunications companies that enabled the president to break the law in his once-secret warrantless wiretapping) that turned our privacy rights upside down and out.

Now, by dismissing the scores of lawsuits against these companies from Americans wanting to know whether they've been ensnared in this giant government-spun Web, the president and such supporters as Obama will have made it close to impossible to conduct meaningful investigations of the intricate nexus of the ways these telecommunications giants can collect leads to Americans with no connections to terrorism — and could continue to so long as they're assured by a future lawless administration that national security demands breaking another law.

Andrew Napolitano, on the other hand, a former New Jersey judge and current legal analyst for Fox News, is a man of the right who we would expect to still be mourning the absence-taking of the last president. But in his 2007 book, A Nation of Sheep, he compared George W. Bush's accumulation of power to "the great dictators of history." In a 2005 interview, Napolitano said of then-President Bush's beloved PATRIOT Act:

Let's put aside all of the procedural problems with enacting it. Forget about the fact that there was no debate. Forget about the fact that most members of Congress didn't even have an opportunity to read it. It is a direct assault on at least three amendments to the Constitution: the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, and the Fifth Amendment. The PATRIOT Act legitimates the notion that if we give up certain freedoms, the government will keep us safer. I reject that notion from a moral and legal point of view. I also reject it from a practical point of view. It doesn't work.

If we buy the right/left divide, Hentoff and Napolitano are supposed to be bitter enemies. But their liberty-based critiques of presidents from their own "teams" makes it clear that they share a stronger fondness for freedom than they do for the artificial red/blue divide. They could probably find plenty of issues on which to disagree, but both have become known as civil libertarians and advocates of limits on government power.

And, in fact, the two men have had kind words for each other over the years.

They should. Like all advocates of liberty, they have in common their love for the freedom of the individual. Working from such a common value, they can actually have meaningful conversations based in mutual respect.

Who else has something in common? Try these two quotes:

Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.


And when we got organized as a country and we wrote a fairly radical Constitution with a radical Bill of Rights, giving a radical amount of individual freedom to Americans, it was assumed that the Americans who had that freedom would use it responsibly. ... [T]here's a lot of irresponsibility. And so a lot of people say there's too much personal freedom. When personal freedom's being abused, you have to move to limit it.

Separated at their philosophical birth, you say? I agree. But who shared such sentiments?

The first quote is from Republican Rudy Giuliani, speaking when he was the mayor of New York City. The second quote is from Democrat Bill Clinton, when he was president of the United States.

So much for those stark contrasts between Team Red and Team Blue, eh? Giuliani and Clinton share common values, too. In fact, the philosophical divide clearly runs much more deeply between Giuliani and Clinton, on one side, and Hentoff and Napolitano, on the other, than along traditional left/right lines.

It should be apparent that the right/left, red/blue divide is ... well ... not meaningless, but much less important than the real political divide, which is between people who care about liberty, and people who prefer control.

That's important to keep in mind during a cold winter when we've made the transition from a president who supports warrantless wiretaps, the performance of unsavory official acts behind the veil of "state secrets" and a government that plays an ever-growing role in our lives to ... well ... another version of the same thing.

There's a political divide out there, but it's not the one that usually distracts us.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

There's nothing like a kid too neurotic to eat a cupcake

My family eats pretty healthy. We're big on fruits, vegetable and grains. I make brown rice instead of white rice -- or, even better, bulgur wheat (it's the awesome base for tabbouleh, among other things). We buy low-sugar cereals, lean meat ...

But pretty much the only protein my three-year-old will eat is whatever is found in hot dogs. So he eats lots of hot dogs (good ones). On a stick. Dipped in ketchup.

Whatever it takes. I'm not going to sweat it and I don't want him getting weird about food. And hell, they taste good.

But apparently not everybody shares my laid-back attitude toward good eats. From the New York Times:
SODIUM — that’s what worries Greye Dunn. He thinks about calories, too, and whether he’s getting enough vitamins. But it’s the sodium that really scares him.

“Sodium makes your heart beat faster, so it can create something really serious,” said Greye, who is 8 years old and lives in Mays Landing, N.J.

Greye’s mother, Beth Dunn, the president of a multimedia company, is proud of her son’s nutritional awareness and encourages it by serving organic food and helping Greye read labels on cereal boxes and cans.

“He wants to be healthy,” she says. ...

“We’re seeing a lot of anxiety in these kids,” said Cynthia Bulik, the director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They go to birthday parties, and if it’s not a granola cake they feel like they can’t eat it. The culture has led both them and their parents to take the public health messages to an extreme.”
Nice going, folks. An eight-year-old obsessed about salt. That's the way to suck the joy from your kids' lives and turn them into neurotic freaks.

You know, it is possible to nudge your kid toward healthy food without making the process of picking up a fork a frightening task fraught with peril.

Here's a clue: There's no such thing as "bad" food. There are foods that are higher in fat than others, lower in fiber, have more sugar or more sodium -- foods that should probably be consumed in moderation. That doesn't mean a pulled-pork sandwich or a cupcake is going to kill you, just that you shouldn't indulge too often.

And conveying a laid-back attitude to your children along with some nutritional savvy will set them up for much happier lives than turning them into fearful little basket cases ever could.
Lisa Dorfman, a registered dietitian and the director of sports nutrition and performance at the University of Miami, says that she often sees children who are terrified of foods that are deemed “bad” by parents. “It’s almost a fear of dying, a fear of illness, like a delusional view of foods in general,” she said. “I see kids whose parents have hypnotized them. I have 5-year-olds that speak like 40-year-olds. They can’t eat an Oreo cookie without being concerned about trans fats.”
Terrified? Of food? That's weird and wrong. Hey folks, let the kids eat the damned Oreos. Then pry your overprotective talons off of them and send them out to play with their friends. They can run around and climb stuff and burn off the evil fat and sugar.

Now, excuse me while I go hunt up a corn dog for my son.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Here's to you, Joe 'Reinvestment Guy' Biden

President Barack "Hopenchange" Obama tells us that he's "tasked Vice President Biden to oversee the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act." So let's look at that fine public official who will be administering the expenditure of a gazillion dollars in funds that the government doesn't actually have, but will have to borrow or print, with the rest of us on the hook for the bill.

God help us.

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Andrew Thomas says photo-radar is no basis for criminal charges

In the latest hit to the credibility of automated traffic enforcement, Andrew P. Thomas, County Attorney in Arizona's Maricopa County, says he won't pursue criminal charges against motorists tagged by photo-radar speed cameras for exceeding the speed limit. In an announcement on Monday, Thomas cited concerns about legislative intent in authorizing the use speed cameras, as well as serious constitutional issues resulting from relying on machines as witnesses in the prosecution of criminal charges.

According to Thomas (PDF):

Subsection D of the statute specifies that “the department of transportation shall not consider the violation for the purpose of determining whether the person’s driver license should be suspended or revoked.” The County Attorney concluded that because the legislature prohibited the use of photo-radar evidence for suspension or revocation of driver’s licenses, the legislature ipso facto could not have intended for such evidence to be used in the even more serious context of criminal charges.

Thomas also pointed out that, "The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that 'in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.'In photo-radar cases, there are no witnesses, and defendants are not permitted to confront their accuser."

Arizona's Constitution is equally clear on the issue, requiring that any criminal defendant be allowed to "meet the witnesses against him face to face.” That's a challenge when the sole source of evidence is a box of electronics with a glass lens.

The plain language of the law, as well as other legal and constitutional principles, disallows criminal prosecution of motorists based on photo-radar evidence.

While the Maricopa County County Attorney's decision means that nobody will face criminal charges based on tickets issued by speed cameras, civil fines remain in place.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety (highway patrol) has declined to respond to Thomas's announcement.

Thomas's decision is only the latest move by an Arizona public official to join growing grassroots opposition to the use of photo-radar speed cameras. Just last month, Judge John C. Keegan of the Arrowhead Justice Court issued an order (PDF) declaring the speed camera program unconstituional. He cited the different penalties attached to tickets issued by the machines vs. those issued by police officers as a violation of the equal protection guarantees of both the federal and Arizona Constitutions.

Given the not uncommon set of circumstances where two drivers are traveling on the same highway, at the same speed in excess of the speed limit, at the same time, in essentially the same location and are cited by the same agency into the same court, ARS § 41-1722 creates a distinction whereby one class of defendant is subjected to a significantly different array of penalties than another class of defendant based solely on the use of photo enforcement.

Now, therefore, it is the determination of this court that the provisions of ARS § 41-1722 are unconstitutional and unenforceable within the jurisdiction of this court.

This Sunday, look to the Arizona Republic where I go head-to-head with the Department of Public Safety in dueling OpEds over the wisdom of speed cameras.

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'Total lack of understanding of basic economics'

That's a quote from free-market pundit (and practitioner) Peter Schiff's rebuttal to the president's state-of-the-union address. In particular, Schiff takes on Obama's emphasis on prosperity-through-credit, as if running up the credit cards is the key to a healthy economy.

Schiff's prescription:
This is not a time to be talking about these grandiose ideas and things the government should be doing for the country. What we need is for the government to shrink; we need government to get out of the way. They've done enough damage.
Schiff, the president of Euro Pacific Capital, is best known for accurately predicting the onset of the current financial mess.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Arizona censorship law may get more muzzling power

Several years ago, the Phoenix New Times, a spunky weekly newspaper in Arizona, published the home address of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the course of an investigation into how the camera-loving "America's toughest sheriff" had managed to acquire such an impressive investment portfolio on the salary he drew from the county. Arpaio and an ally, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, replied with a criminal inquiry against the newspaper for violating an obscure and constitutionally questionable law against publishing law-enforcement officers' personal information on the Internet. That law is now being revisited by legislators in a way that may make it even more restrictive.

The law in question currently says:

It is unlawful for a person to knowingly make available on the world wide web the personal information of a peace officer, justice, judge, commissioner, public defender or prosecutor if the dissemination of the personal information poses an imminent and serious threat to the peace officer's, justice's, judge's, commissioner's, public defender's or prosecutor's safety or the safety of that person's immediate family and the threat is reasonably apparent to the person making the information available on the world wide web to be serious and imminent.

It's a strange law, extending special protection to a particular class of people -- cops, judges, prosecutors and the like -- arguably without regard for the equal protection requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment. It also, of course, threatens freedom of speech and freedom of the press with prior restraint, content-based regulation of what can be published -- but only on the World Wide Web. The Phoenix New Times wasn't targeted for publicizing the location of Arpaio's plush abode in its pages, but for putting a copy of the article online. Why? Probably because such limitations are pretty clearly First Amendment violations when applied to the print media, but new media still exists in a bit of a legal limbo -- or, it did when the law was passed.

The Arizona law isn't alone; a Florida man faces charges for publishing a police officer's address online in that state. His lawyer is, not surprisingly, challenging the law as unconstitutional. Interestingly, violation of the Florida law is a misdemeanor, while Arizona makes it a class 5 felony.

But the Arizona law, as currently written, at least includes the caveat that publishing police officers' personal information online is illegal only if "the dissemination of the personal information poses an imminent and serious threat." Whether that's much of a limitation or not is anybody's guess -- interpretation is in the hands of the local officials who enjoy the benefits of the law. Your attorney can debate the meaning of "imminent" while you cool your heels (or warm them -- this is Arizona) in the lock-up.

Courtesy of Rep. Jerry Weiers, though, HR 2380, currently working its way through the legislature, would revise the law to remove the "imminent and serious" requirement and read as follows:

It is unlawful for a person to intentionally communicate or make available on the internet the personal information of an eligible person if the eligible person makes a written demand of the person to not communicate or make available the eligible person's personal information.

The new language defines "eligible person" as "a current or retired peace officer, justice, judge, commissioner, public defender or prosecutor." In place of the "imminent and serious" verbiage of the current law, the new language adds the requirement that an "eligible person" actively demand that his or her information remain off the Internet (but it can still be published on paper or broadcast over the air). That's more of a tool than a limitation, though, since it allows officials under investigation to fire off letters at will muzzling bloggers and the Web editions of newspapers.

As the Arizona Republic complains in an editorial, "All they have to do is write a demand letter, and - voila! - they control the media, which could face felony prosecution for failing to abide by their demands. There is no procedural mechanism by which a person could challenge such a letter."

I have good relations with the Republic, but the newspaper inexplicably seems to approve of the existing version of the law because it "protects undercover officers from imminent danger." I would never be so crass as to point out that the law has little impact on a primarily dead-tree operation like the Republic, while threatening smaller (and less lawyer-heavy) online operations.

Whoops! I guess I just did.

Weiers hasn't responded to my inquiries about his rationale for the new law, but my guess is that he hopes to shore up the legislation against challenges even while making it more of a bludgeon in public officials' hands. In the wake of a ham-handed arrest of two of its executives in the course of its wrangling with Arpaio, The Phoenix New Times is taking the sheriff to court for civil rights violations, and the muzzle law just might play a major role in the case.

The law should come up, and whatever version is in place when a judge finally examines the abusive piece of legislative excretia, it should be swept away as an unacceptable exercise of censorship.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Robert Scheer calls Obama's policies 'fascism'

My friend, Thaddeus Russell, points me to the February 20 edition of NPR-affiliate KCRW's "Left, Right & Center," (at 8:30 in the recording) in which Robert Scheer, a voice of the left on the show and contributing editor to The Nation, had some sharp points to make about the blast-from-the-blackshirted-past nature of President Barack Obama's economic policies.
Robert Scheer: I don't think the idea of nationalizing, as it's now being called--which means basically bailing out these banks, setting them straight, then letting them go private again, which is the model that everybody is using, and the people who get screwed are the people whose retirement funds had common or preferred shares and they get wiped out, and these bankers come out richer than ever at the other end--that's not a leftist idea and it's not socialism. This is what we used to, in Comparative Economic Systems, call fascism. It's putting government at the service of the big financial interests. That's what happened in Italy, that's what happened in Germany, that's what happened in Japan. . . .

Tony Blankley: What I don't understand is how my colleagues on this show, who I believe were for Obama, now saying he's leading a fascist regime. Did he mislead them a few weeks ago when he was still running? . . .

Robert Scheer: To answer your question, I am disappointed in Barack Obama and I'm not quite sure what he's doing.
Scheer was careful to say he wasn't calling Obama a fascist, just that his policies are fascism...


For the record, I think Scheer is accurate in emphasizing that the unsavory policy bouillabaisse coming out of D.C. these days has less to do with Leninist-style state socialism (and certainly nothing in common with non-statist syndicalism, anarcho-socialism or the other forms of cooperative economics that don't require men with guns to operate) than with the corporatist variant on socialism developed by Mussolini.

This should be no surprise, since the government-control-without-expropriation model pursued by the center-left over the past couple of decades has become increasingly corporatist in nature. Thomas J. DiLorenzo, a professor of economics at Loyola College, warned in a 1994 article in The Freeman:
[I]t is important to recognize that, as an economic system, fascism was widely accepted in the l920s and '30s. The evil deeds of individual fascists were later condemned, but the practice of economic fascism never was. ...
But what was fascism in policy terms? Said DiLorenzo:
From an economic perspective, fascism meant (and means) an interventionist industrial policy, mercantilism, protectionism, and an ideology that makes the individual subservient to the state. “Ask not what the State can do for you, but what you can do for the State” is an apt description of the economic philosophy of fascism. ...
And this is relevant to us today, he continued, because:

Now that socialism has collapsed and survives nowhere but in Cuba, China, Vietnam, and on American university campuses, the biggest threat to economic liberty and individual freedom lies in the new economic fascism. While the former Communist countries are trying to privatize as many industries as possible as fast as they can, they are still plagued by governmental controls, leaving them with essentially fascist economies: private property and private enterprise are permitted, but are heavily controlled and regulated by government.

As most of the rest of the world struggles to privatize industry and encourage free enterprise, we in the United States are seriously debating whether or not we should adopt 1930s-era economic fascism as the organizational principle of our entire health care system, which comprises 14 percent of GNP. We are also contemplating business-government “partnerships” in the automobile, airlines, and communications industries, among others, and are adopting government-managed trade policies, also in the spirit of the European corporatist schemes of the 1930s.

As government officials bail out their well-connected friends in the banking, auto and other industries, and further establish state authority over economic activity, you can almost hear the ghost of Mussolini standing in the background, approvingly saying, "Ecco un ditatore!" (behold a dictator!) as he did of FDR.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Don't screw with the teleprompter

What happens when a politician's best friend flexes its muscles ...


Friday, February 20, 2009

Good luck with that online 'Fairness Doctrine'

For the past few days, the online world has been a-buzz with reports that Rep. Henry Waxman, the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wants to control what people can say not just in radio and television broadcasts, but also over the Internet. It's important to note that Waxman and company deny the report of a new "Fairness Doctrine," with a committee spokesperson calling the report "false." Take the assurances of government officials for what they're worth -- less than you paid for them. But as oppressive as the idea of government regulation of speech is, it's fair to say that censorship of the Internet wouldn't just be legally challenging -- it would be damned near impossible.

According to the original report on The Prowler blog at The American Spectator:

"Does one radio station or one station group control four of the five most powerful outlets in one community? Do four stations in one region carry Rush Limbaugh, and nothing else during the same time slot? Does one heavily trafficked Internet site present one side of an issue and not link to sites that present alternative views? These are some of the questions the chairman is thinking about right now, and we are going to have an FCC that will finally have the people in place to answer them."

Legally speaking, it's difficult to see what basis the U.S. government would have for regulating Internet content. Since Reno v. ACLU, when Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that there is "no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to the Internet," the courts have largely treated online media as due the same protections as print media, with little room for government control of content.

That stands in welcome contrast to the latitude the courts have granted politicians to meddle, at least initially, in other new technologies, such as cinema, radio and television. As Robert Corn-Revere wrote in an overview of electronic free speech for the First Amendment Center, "contrary to the First Amendment tradition, the electronic media tend to be born in captivity."

Of course, the rationale for regulating broadcast media has long been that it's a special case since radio and TV stations use the "public airwaves" and therefore have a duty to tailor their content to the public interest -- as interpreted by government officials.

But the "public airwaves" argument has a dubious history. It was pretty clearly cooked up as a deliberate end-run around First Amendment protections, as something censors could hang their hats on when arguing for the power to control a new medium that promised to rival print in reach and popularity.

In his 1991 book, Freedom, Technology and the First Amendment, author Jonathan Emord wrote:

As early as the First National Radio Conference in 1922, Secretary of Commerce Hoover had said that the "ether" was a "public" medium. By the Fourth National Radio Conference in 1925, he had developed a theory that the entire broadcasting industry was one necessarily imbued with a "public" character, that is, a nature that must be under government controls to ensure that it presented programming in the "public interest." ...

In Hoover's view, the broadcaster's freedom of speech had to be suppressed to ensure the propogation of a "preferred" message, one tailored by government for the benefit of the listening public. ...

Born two centuries earlier, Hoover might have argued that newsprint and ink were national treasures that should be safeguarded by the state -- and carefully doled out only to "responsible" publishers. We're lucky Hoover wasn't born early enough to wear a tricorn hat, because the courts bought his self-serving reasoning (except for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who once wrote, "The Fairness Doctrine has no place in our First Amendment regime.").

Dubious as the "public airwaves" argument is, it doesn't apply to the online speech. The courts have returned to First Amendment sanity with their rulings regarding the Internet. Cyberspace hasn't been declared some sort of public trust subject to political whim, and regulators have been given no authority over a medium where publishers operate subject to rules similar to those applied to newspapers and magazines. It's difficult to see legal doctrine toward the Internet changing so dramatically that speech protections would be as hobbled for Websites and Vloggers as they are for radio stations.

But there's a bigger hurdle to an Internet Fairness Doctrine than the Constitution: the ease with which it can be evaded by publishing beyond the reach of the law. Even during the early days of broadcast regulation, some radio entrepreneurs escaped the clutches of the Federal Radio Commission (later the FCC) by setting up stations in Mexico. Laws stop at the border, but radio waves do not, so outlaw broadcasters ran souped-up transmitters to the delight of their audiences -- and the dismay of the "public airwaves" types. Broadcast content regulations are less onerous (for the moment) than in the past, so border radio is no big deal these days -- but it still exists.

But radio stations have to cluster near the border to be relevant, even as they evade the censors. Internet operations can be based anywhere. Try pulling up the Sydney Morning Herald some time. You'll never notice, but those servers are a long ways from here. Well, unless you're Australian, of course, in which case you're proving my point by scanning these words at The Examiner.

Even assuming some sort of Internet Fairness Doctrine could pass legal muster, how would it be applied to Websites that suddenly shifted all their content to servers in Antigua, or Holland, or Estonia? It'd be like border radio all over again, except that free speech entrepreneurs could do their business from cafes in Prague instead of dusty towns in Mexico.

This is hardly a new concept. Even China, which built censorship into its Internet connections, has trouble controlling access to forbidden content based beyond its borders.

Whether or not Rep. Henry Waxman actually has any interest in regulating online speech with a new and more overbearing than ever Fairness Doctrine, I have no doubt that some officials would love to give it a try. They wouldn't be in government if they didn't love the idea of control.

But if they ever tried, it would be one of the more widely defied and ineffective regulations ever imposed by the U.S. government.


Our legacy to the kids

The national spending spree, by which the U.S. government will seek to get the country out of a slump caused by too much spending and debt by running up the credit cards and letting the kids and grandkids worry about the bills, is now law. It's a truly remarkable effort, not just because of the questionable economics behind the whole idea of stimulus spending, but because of the troubling ethical implications of trying to buy our way out of today's problems by binding the Americans of tomorrow to foot the bill for our idiocy. By doing so, it spends not just money, but the liberty of generations to come.

Respected economist Robert Barro calls the massive spending bill "probably the worst bill that has been put forward since the 1930s." Hundreds of economists, including three Nobel Laureates, joined Barro in denouncing the bill and calling instead for lower taxes and reduced government spending. Many of them say the spending spree is a doomed effort (PDF) to prop up a bubble economy that bad government policies created to begin with.

But even if (unlikely) there's some small degree of truth to Keynesian fantasy that prosperity can be purchased through a ritual involving throwing stacks of cash out the window, the money we've just committed to throwing out the window doesn't exist. The cash will have to be borrowed from people who expect a return on the investment. With interest, the cost of the final $789 billion stimulus bill rises to over a trillion dollars. And if, as is likely, the new spending programs created in the bill prove as hard to kill as government boondoggles of the past, the cost rises, according to the Congressional Budget Office (PDF), to include $820 billion in planned deficits, $1.7 trillion in additional deficits for the extended spending, plus $745 billion in interest costs. Total cost: In the neighborhood of $3.27 trillion. And that's on top of the existing national debt.

Do you have children? Do you have grandchildren? Cute buggers, aren't they? Let them enjoy themselves now, because they're going to have to work hard to pay off that bill.

That means higher taxes for years to come. That means an intrusive tax collection apparatus to service the endless demands of interest and principal payments. That means constrained choices and a big hole in the nation's wealth dedicated to paying bills the politicians ran up long years in the past.

It means life with a big, fat monkey on your back, placed their by your irresponsible parents.

If they choose to accept the burden.

I don't think they should. I've written before that I think those of us disgusted by the government's efforts to bind us into debt slavery should make it clear that we won't accept the obligation to pay of that sea of red ink. That goes double for my three-year-old son and all the other children living and yet to be born who had no say in this act of insanity.

My son can't be compelled to pay off my credit card bills or his mother's student loans; he certainly has no obligation to shoulder the cost of bad choices made by government officials for whom he never voted.

The "stimulus" bill signed this week is an assault on the liberty and prosperity of our children. When they grow old enough to respond, they should treat that assault with all the contempt it deserves, and shrug off the burden they've been handed.

And if that shrug hobbles the U.S. government's future efforts at financial creativity? Well. I guess I'd call that a feature, not a bug.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pain can be fun -- if you're a sick bastard who works for the government

As part of its Guantanamo Testimonials Project, the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas interviews guards, prisoners, investigators, interrogators, physicians and others about the conditions that prevailed at the U.S. detention center at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Among those interviewed was Specialist Brandon Neely, a military policeman stationed at Camp X-Ray. There's plenty to be horrified about in the United States government's treatment of prisoners held as terrorism suspects, but the following struck me in particular because of its casual, purposeless nature:

I talked about the detainee who came to Camp X-Ray wounded from a .50 caliber. His bicep had attached to his forearm due to the fact his arm was in the sling for so long. I escorted this detainee to medical a couple times for physical therapy as he could not bend his arm down at all. On one occasion, when I escorted him there the medic began to massage the area that was attached and he keep rubbing harder and harder to the point the detainee started to cry and squirm all over the bed. The medic stopped massaging and started to stretch the detainee's arm down a little at a time. You could tell this was very painful and uncomfortable for him. The medic said "You really want to watch him scream." Then he stretched the arm all the way down until it was straight out on the bed. The detainee started screaming loud and crying. The medic finally put his arm back up and did it again. And then he said he was finished with the physical therapy. The whole time the medic just laughed at what he was doing. We then escorted the detainee back to his cage.

Note that pain was inflicted on a disabled prisoner in the course of physical therapy for an injury. The pain served no punishment purpose and there was no intention to elicit information or compliance. The prisoner was abused by a medic for ... fun.

Neely admits to participating in one incident abuse, so he exposes himself to liability with his testimony. He also talks of acts of kindness by some of the guards who pitied the prisoners and were ashamed of conditions at the detention center.

President Barack Obama has promised to close Guantanamo -- in a year. Well, that's a start. So is his promise to "review" detention and interrogation policies, provided that the review results in reforms. We don't need more of the same, which is what we're getting with the new administration's protection of "state secrets."

But official policies are one thing. What do we do about a culture of casual cruelty toward detainees for entertainment prurposes?

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CNBC's Rick Santelli tears into the 'stimulus' package

What happens when a TV broadcaster who knows what he's talking about has had enough?


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Not anti-war; anti- the other guy's war

President Barack Obama, the great hope of the anti-war movement (remember campaign-era headlines like, "Obama's Antiwar Message Receives Cheers in Nashua, Durham"), is ordering 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, with an additional 30,000 on order should the latest shipment ... get damaged in transit? Chewed up on arrival?

However it works out, lots more American soldiers are headed to a conflict-ridden part of the world for reasons not so clear, except that they "will contribute to the security of the Afghan people and to stability in Afghanistan." Oh, goody. It's nice that Afghanistan will get some security and stability for the first time since ... umm ... ever? Glad we're the guys up to the job.

If we are.

The Christian Science Monitor has a nice take on the troop movements, writing:

President Obama's decision to deploy 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan may be a defining move that will either reverse the deteriorating situation there or mire the new administration in a war with no foreseeable end. ...

It is as yet unclear exactly what the new force will do. But it will face a determined insurgency operating in a vast, mountainous country. Despite seven years of US operations in Afghanistan, the bulk of the American fighting force is steeped in Iraq operations and will have to learn or relearn an entirely new culture, language, and battlefield conditions.

At the same time, the Obama administration still has not settled on a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and does not yet know its endgame. That strategy is being debated by senior US military and civilian officials. A decision isn't expected for another two months.

Yes, it's change you can believe in. I believe that soon, more body bags will be coming from Afghanistan than from Iraq. That is a change!


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I'd like the control-freaks-out-of-my-face package, please

Netflix offers different packages to its customers: one, two or three movies at a time, and would you like Blu-ray with that? So do health clubs, which sell access to classes, coaches and equipment. My phone carrier offers a dizzying array of choices that can keep your costs down or grant you unlimited chatting from anywhere on the planet. Menus of options are the standard for most interactions between people and institutions that want to cater to a variety of tastes. So why do we settle for one-size-fits-all when it comes to our relationship with the government? Especially since arguments over the nature of the political package on offer have become so divisive and all-consuming.

The fact is, we vary as much as political consumers as we do as connoisseurs of movies, fitness equipment and mobile phone service. A recent paper (PDF) published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that liberals, conservatives and libertarians differ in their fundamental premises about what constitutes a "good society," and in the moral basics on which they construct their ideologies. Starting from such different foundations, it's ridiculous to think that an adherent of one of these ideologies could ever be happy with the sort of political arrangements that please members of another group.

Does it make any more sense to shoe-horn disparate individuals into the same package of political offerings and costs than it does to force them all to pay for spinning classes and nutrition counseling when all they want is to jump on the treadmill?

Maybe it's time to reconsider government as a provider of services -- services that can be and should be tailored to different tastes, so that what we get from and surrender to the government can be, to the extent possible, a matter of personal choice rather than a consequence of political combat.

This isn't exactly a new idea. The federal nature of the United States was supposed to result in separate "laboratories of democracy" bound together in one country. If people didn't like what was happening in Massachusetts, they could choose an arrangement that worked better for them by moving to Rhode Island or Pennsylvania.

So a menu of arrangements with the government could be considered an extension of federalism, but without geographical borders. On your eighteenth birthday, with opportunities to revisit the decision thereafter, you'd pick from a menu of arrangements with the government, representing very different packages of goodies and obligations.

One package might offer more extensive services, such as subsidized student loans, small business grants, health coverage and Social Security in return for somewhat higher taxes and observance of certain sets of regulations. Businesses eligible for low-cost loans and other forms of support would have to submit to the authority of regulatory agencies.

Another package would be bare-bones, offering no access to special services, support or pensions, but also requiring lower taxes and imposing fewer regulations. Anybody opting for this option would accept a higher level of personal responsibility in return for fewer taxes and less red tape.

Folks dubious about the value of alternative lifestyles and open sexuality could opt for a package that includes covenant marriage and a set of traditional moral standards accompanied by a badge of approval for participating institutions.

Businesses and individuals subject to regulatory regimes could advertise their status, so that people who put their faith in inspectors and regulations could so direct their trade.

Obviously, you couldn't spend your life in low-tax status, only to hop on the gravy-train package at 65 to take advantage of Social Security, so some kind of buy-in or window of opportunity would have to apply so that people didn't game the system.

And the various packages would have to be protected so that they aren't incrementally forced into homogeneity by the federal government the way the states largely have been on many issues.

Government has increasingly become a provider of services to the public. If that's what it's going to be, there's no reason why those services shouldn't be differentiated to cater to the very different tastes of widely divergent markets, including the preferences of liberals, conservatives, libertarians, socialists, and individuals of no particular ideology but very clear preferences

Or we could keep fighting to jam our preferences down the neighbors' throats.


Milton Friedman talks about greed

In 1979, Phil Donahue asked Milton Friedman how he could defend a system based on "greed." Friedman then proceeded to school Donahue in the realities of the world, including the self-interest at the basis of authoritarian, non-market socialist economic systems that Donahue seemed to favor.
"Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest?"

I guess this is a lesson that never truly sinks in.


Monday, February 16, 2009

If you want liberty for yourself, you have to allow it for everybody

In the comments to my jury nullification piece at The Examiner (yes, I read comments) Smitty was especially on-point when he said, "The real problem might be toleration, or more accurately, the lack of it. We wish our preferred freedoms to be respected, while applauding governmental crackdowns upon those freedoms we dislike or are indifferent to." Frankly that's been an ongoing hurdle in the effort to preserve and extend liberty. Until pot-smokers and gun owners and low-taxers and sexual minorities recognize that liberty is indivisible and that we're all in this together, we're going to be picked off piecemeal by government officials all too happy to exploit our mutual antagonisms.

After World War II, Pastor Martin Niemöller voiced several variants of the following sentiments in his public speeches:

When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I was not a Jew.

When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

Along the same lines, Benjamin Franklin once commented, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

It comes down to the same thing: When liberty is under attack, everybody is at risk. But that's not what the politicians and inspectors and tax collectors and police officers say, of course. No, they're all too happy to tell you that the queers next door are a threat to your way of life, or that the gun nuts are a public danger, or that the tax dodgers are greedy and not doing their fair share, or the store keepers are running amuck without entangling red tape, or that the pot heads are lazy parasites who will corrupt your kids.

But once the politicians and inspectors and tax collectors and police officers are done with the queers, they'll happily shift their sights to the gun nuts, then to the tax dodgers, the store keepers, and then the pot heads, and ...

Where were you planning to hide? Forget about it. Because you're some kind of menace, too, and you'll be fresh out of allies if you don't realize that the freedom of people you don't care very much about is just as important as your own.

The sort of people who make up the political class -- the control freaks of the world -- are experts at divide and conquer. They have all sorts of reasons why you should be glad that somebody else is being hemmed in by laws and threatened with prison. Those people are bad -- until it's you who's so bad. What the control freaks will never tell you is that they'd be entirely unable to impose those draconian laws and threats if you'd ally yourselves with those different folks and their peculiar interests to protect their liberty and your own at the same time.

You don't care about your neighbor's gun collection and he doesn't give a damn about your pot farm? So what? If you help each other out, everybody wins. If you don't, you'll both end up losing something you want, or else hiding it in the shadows and hoping for the best.

Keep that in mind the next time a politician promises to protect you from bogeymen who look an awful lot like the pleasant couple who live down the street. Maybe it's time to knock on their door and talk about an alliance of convenience.

Because you're not going to stay free if the only liberty you care about is your own.


Friday, February 13, 2009

Brits show Yanks how a police state is done

In years to come, those of us mourning the erosion of liberty in America will probably turn to each other from time to time and sigh, "It could be worse; we could be British." Actually, we can do that right now. Maybe it's something in the water over there, but the government of the UK seems to have watched the former Bush administration's abuses of due process and privacy (and the Obama administration's "nothing to see here" attitude toward maintaining much of the same), sneered "pikers," and set about to show the world how a democracy is really turned into a police state.

Things like this rarely happen over night, and sure enough, Britain's descent into the world of V for Vendetta has been building for a long time. There have been creeping restrictions on free speech, closed-circuit TV cameras on every corner, national ID cards on the way, and the like for many years.

But over the past two weeks ... Well, let's just look, shall we?

The Daily Mail reports:

A secret police intelligence unit has been set up to spy on Left-wing and Right-wing political groups.

The Confidential Intelligence Unit (CIU) has the power to operate across the UK and will mount surveillance and run informers on ‘domestic extremists’.

Its job is to build up a detailed picture of radical campaigners.

Targets will include environmental groups involved in direct action such as Plane Stupid, whose supporters invaded the runway at Stansted Airport in December.

The unit also aims to identify the ring-leaders behind violent demonstrations such as the recent anti-Israel protests in London, and to infiltrate neo-Nazi groups, animal liberation groups and organisations behind unlawful industrial action such as secondary picketing.

The paper based its report on "[a]n internal police job advertisement," and it didn't take that much effort to find an expired (but still cached) relevant job listing at

Head of Confidential Intelligence Unit (CIU) National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU
City London
Career Level Senior Manager / Head of Department
Industry Public Sector/Public Authority, Local Government, State/Internal Security, National Security

Job Description Organisation: ACPO Business Area: Terrorism and Allied Matters Job Title: Head of Confidential Intelligence Unit (CIU) National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) Rank: Detective Chief Inspector Reports to: D/Supt Head of NPOIU Salary: Chief Inspector range + allowances Type: Full time police officer Location: London Main purpose of Role: To manage the covert intelligence function for domestic extremism, and the confidential intelligence unit. The post carries membership of NPOIU Senior Management Team and you will be expected to make a significant contribution to the overall performance of the police service of England and Wales and the

Rather chillingly, The Daily Mail reports,"The CIU will also use legal proceedings to prevent details of its operations being made public."

Britain, like the U.S. has a history of such domestic spying, and it always ends badly. Intelligence units tasked with watching terrorists inevitably include mere radicals among their targets, then simple political protesters and, ultimately, pretty much anybody who says something critical about the government. Among the past targets in the UK of domestic surveillance were Ewan MacColl, a Pete Seeger-ish folk singer with communist sympathies, John Lennon, and the band UB40.

The new British unit actually appears to be starting out with that far-reaching mission.

Then there's The Daily Telegraph's report that pending legislation would allow just about every governing body in the UK to see who is communicating with whom, and how often.

Towns halls, along with police, security services and other public bodies will be able to view "communications" details of any one suspected of crime.

But critics fear the move will simply pave the way for authorities to spy on millions of citizens and taxpayers. ...

Bodies will not be allowed to see the content of communications but will have access to data such as who was called or texted and when or which websites were visited. ...

Since 2007, phone companies have had to retain data about calls for 12 months and hand it over to more than 650 public bodies.

Parliament approved the powers, described as a vital tool against terrorism, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

But under the latest order that is to be extended to all communications, including the internet.

The move appears to be a revival of an effort to extend electronic surveillance powers that was shelved amidst public fury back in 2002. At the time, press reports described the retreat as "a humiliating climbdown," but the state is nothing if not patient.

Speculation at the time was that the government was dissuaded as much by technical hurdles as by widespread resistance. The new bill suggests that technology has advanced enough in seven years to make the surveillance scheme more feasible.

And electronic surveillance is at least as popular with British authorities as with their American counterparts. The European Court of Human Rights ruled last summer that the UK government went too far with its years-long wiretapping of civil rights groups.

If you were planning to keep tabs on the domestic snoops and wiretappers in Britain, don't plan on including photographs in your files. Taking snapshots of police officers is about to become a serious crime. According to the British Journal of Photography:

Set to become law on 16 February, the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 amends the Terrorism Act 2000 regarding offences relating to information about members of armed forces, a member of the intelligence services, or a police officer.

The new set of rules, under section 76 of the 2008 Act and section 58A of the 2000 Act, will target anyone who 'elicits or attempts to elicit information about [members of armed forces] … which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism'.

A person found guilty of this offence could be liable to imprisonment for up to 10 years, and to a fine.

The law is expected to increase the anti-terrorism powers used today by police officers to stop photographers, including press photographers, from taking pictures in public places. 'Who is to say that police officers won’t abuse these powers,' asks freelance photographer Justin Tallis, who was threatened by an officer last week.

The Home Office doesn't deny the possible application of the new law to photographers, saying that interpretation will be up to police and the courts.

Even before the new law, photographers have been challenged in Britain (as in America) by police officers unhappy about being the target of a lens. Last year, photographer Lawrence Looi was forced to delete images from his memory card by a police sergeant, and Andrew Carter was actually dragged off to jail for a similar "offense." Such incidents are bound to increase when police officers can point to new legal authority.

I'd like to say that's it, but it's not. There's the small matter os the creeping national ID program in the UK. And then Dutch rabble-rousing politician Geert Wilders was detained at Heathrow airport before being ejected from the country for his political views.

After years of depressing civil liberties violations here in the United States, it's astonishing to be able to say that the UK makes America look good.

Just what kind of country is the British government trying to create?

And is it time to break out those Guy Fawkes masks?

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Wall Street Journal OpEd calls for competing hard currencies

I really never expected to see the following thoughts appear in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, but I guess despair over government spending gobs of money that doesn't even exist in order to metastasize itself into every nook and cranny of society has a way of moving the goalposts on acceptable opinion. Economist Judy Shelton writes:
If capitalism is to be preserved, it can't be through the con game of diluting the value of money. People see through such tactics; they recognize the signs of impending inflation. When we see Congress getting ready to pay for 40% of 2009 federal budget expenditures with money created from thin air, there's no getting around it. Our money will lose its capacity to serve as an honest measure, a meaningful unit of account. Our paper currency cannot provide a reliable store of value.

So we must first establish a sound foundation for capitalism by permitting people to use a form of money they trust. Gold and silver have traditionally served as currencies -- and for good reason. A study by two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Arthur Rolnick and Warren Weber, concluded that gold and silver standards consistently outperform fiat standards. Analyzing data over many decades for a large sample of countries, they found that "every country in our sample experienced a higher rate of inflation in the period during which it was operating under a fiat standard than in the period during which it was operating under a commodity standard."

Given that the driving force of free-market capitalism is competition, it stands to reason that the best way to improve money is through currency competition. Individuals should be able to choose whether they wish to carry out their personal economic transactions using the paper currency offered by the government, or to conduct their affairs using voluntary private contracts linked to payment in gold or silver.

Hmmm ... Is anybody listening?


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nickel-bag Joe has to go to court after all

Oh, poor Sheriff Joe. The courts just won't cut him any slack.
A federal judge denied a request by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to dismiss a lawsuit against him that alleges his deputies have racially profiled Hispanics.

The ruling Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Mary Murguia allows lawyers for the Hispanic civil rights group Somos America and other plaintiffs to continue pressing their allegations in court.
Hmmm ... Such distractions. I think Joe Arpaio should take a sabbatical to deal with his legal troubles. I'm sure we'll have a job waiting for him when he's ready. Right?


Juries quietly flip the bird to oppressive laws

In Washington, D.C., a jury ignored a military veteran's obvious violation of the city's draconian gun laws, setting him free with only a slap on the wrist. In LaSalle County, Illinois, a medical marijuana user found with 25 pounds of the plant didn't even get the slap; jurors chatted with him after finding him not guilty. While we can't know for sure, in both cases jury nullification was likely at work as regular people serving an important role in courtrooms exercised their power to quash laws they found repugnant.

Corporal Melroy H. Cort, who lost his knees to an improvised bomb in Ramadi, Iraq, was en route to Walter Reed Hospital from his home in Columbus, Ohio, when his car got a flat. He and his wife, Samantha, pulled over for repairs, at which time Cort, who has a concealed carry permit at home, retrieved his 9mm pistol from his glove compartment and put it in his pocket.

Cort's gun was spotted by somebody who called police, and Cort rapidly gained a rapid education in D.C. notoriously strict firearms laws. He was charged with carrying a pistol without a license, possession of an unregistered firearm and possession of ammunition. He spent the night behind bars for having the nerve to possess a weapon in a city that, while it has improved since its nadir in the 1990s, still has about triple the national average rate of violent crime.

Despite its crime rate, D.C. has done its best to deny residents the right to legally defend themselves. This is the city that was taken to court for its restrictions -- and lost, resulting in the landmark case of D.C. v. Heller, which reaffirmed that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to keep and bear arms. Depite that loss, city laws remain extremely restrictive, and Cort had clearly run afoul of local law.

But an amazing thing happened in court. According to the Washington Post:

After being deadlocked twice, a D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday acquitted a Marine amputee on felony charges of gun possession stemming from an arrest while he was on the way to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. ...

Although acquitting him of the gun charges, the jury found Cort guilty of possessing ammunition, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to time already spent in the D.C. jail.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the jury ultimately saw no benefit in applying the city's tight gun laws to a handicapped man who was just passing through. Maybe they even questioned the overall propriety of the laws. In the end, they rather clearly ignored the law to set Cort free with just a nominal slap on the wrist -- which he plans to appeal.

And that brings us to the case of Loren J. Swift. Swift was arrested during a peaceful encounter at his home with a sizeable quantity of marijuana and plants -- reportedly 25 pounds and 50 pounds, respectively. He had been convicted once before for marijuana possession. A Navy veteran, Swift says he smokes marijuana to relieve pain and alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, but Illinois does not yet have a medical marijuana law.

Twenty-five pounds of grass, plus plants, in a state where marijuana is strictly illegal. That doesn't sound good for Swift. Except ...

On Wednesday in La Salle County Circuit Court, several jurors shook hands with an emotional Loren J. Swift after finding him not guilty of a marijuana charge that would have sent him to prison. ...

In the courthouse lobby, after the verdict, two male jurors talked and laughed with Swift and his attorney, Randy Gordon; one of the jurors patted Swift on his back. However, one of these jurors refused to admit he was a juror when The Times approached him for comment about the verdict; the other juror didn't deny he was indeed a juror, but nevertheless refused to talk.

Not surprisingly, observers at Swift's trial openly speculated about jury nullification. Once again, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that jurors sympathized more with the defendant than with the law, so decided to ignore what the statute books say.

In doing so, in both cases, justice prevailed. So did liberty.

We don't know what was going through the jurors' heads in the Cort and Swift trials, or whether any jurors were even familiar with jury nullification. But it's not that difficult a concept to invent from scratch, if necessary.

Historically, as President John Adams put it, it has been the juror's "duty ... to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court." Unfortunately, you won't come across that quote from Adams in many modern courtrooms. Government officials don't like being second-guessed by the hoi polloi, so the tradition of independent juries has been allowed to wither from neglect. Few jurors ever learn about the traditional power of juries.

But you don't need to know history to have an inkling that the rights of the individual sometimes violate the dictates of the law -- and then decide to come down in favor of individual rights. And individual rights are an endangered species in a nation increasingly hemmed in by laws and regulations that seem to render ever more of our daily activities either mandatory or forbidden. They need as much protection as they can get.

To preserve what's left of our liberty, jury nullification is a good and powerful tool for checking government power. But since it is frequently discouraged by judges and prosecutors jealous of their prerogatives, it's generally exercised on the sly -- often by jurors unaware that they're doing exactly what was originally intended. For that reason, we'll likely never know exactly when nullification is being exercised.

But we can celebrate it when we see it.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cato Institute's video challenge to the 'stimulus' boondoggle

Yes, I know the Senate passed that abomination masquerading as a "stimulus" package. Nevertheless, it's worth seeing Cato's latest take on the lousy economics behind the package and the crippling debt it immorally passes to future generations.


New boss slides into old boss's shoes, finds them comfy

Will we ever know what the Bush administration was doing to whom, and if the situation will improve under the new Obama administration? The short answer is: "no." At least when it comes to the "extraordinary rendition" of terrorism suspects to countries lacking inconvenient laws against torture, President Barack Obama is every bit as enthusiastic about keeping mum about embarassing "state secrets" as his predecessor.

As the American Civil Liberties Union summarizes the issue:

The Justice Department today repeated Bush administration claims of "state secrets" in a lawsuit against Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen DataPlan for its role in the extraordinary rendition program. Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen was brought on behalf of five men who were kidnapped and secretly transferred to U.S.-run prisons or foreign intelligence agencies overseas where they were interrogated under torture.

The Bush administration had argued that the lawsuit brought by Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian native, and four other detainees should be dismissed as a threat to national security.

What does that mean?

In a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy dated March 31, 2008, opposing a congressional challenge to state secrets privilege, then-Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey wrote (PDF):

The state secrets privilege long has been recognized by United States courts as a method of allowing the Executive branch to safeguard information regarding the Nation's security or diplomatic relations. See Totten v. United States, 92 U.S. 105, 107 (1875) (dismissing contract claim to protect civil war era espionage relationship). Over fifty years ago, in United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1 (1953), the Supreme Court articulated the basic contours of the state secrets privilege. The Supretne Court held that the United States may prevent the disclosure of information in a judicial proceeding if "there is a reasotiable danger" that such disclosure "will expose military matters which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged."

Mukasey proceeded to argue:

It is far from clear that Congress has the constitutional authority to alter the terms and conditionsof the state secrets privilege, as the bill purports to do.

Legal experts and civil libertarians were hopeful until yesterday that the Obama administration's promises to review the "state secrets" doctrine would let a little sun shine on the nastier transgressions of the U.S. government against individual rights and simple decency, and help to prevent a recurrence in the future.

Along those lines, on Monday, Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said, "It's vital that we protect information that if released could jeopardize national security, but the Justice Department will ensure the privilege is not invoked to hide from the American people information about their government's actions that they have a right to know."

Well, apparently Attorney General Eric Holder's new, improved Justice Department thinks Americans don't have a right to know that the U.S. government was outsourcing its torture needs to experts in some of the world's hell-holes.

That this flies in the face of the new president's promises goes without saying. Running against the record of a Bush administration that cloaked its misdeeds in secrecy, Barack Obama talked repeatedly about "transparency" and the need for open government. Airing out civil liberties violations by the previous administration would seem to be a pretty basic baby step in that direction.

But, apparently, that's not to be.

In response to the Obama administration's move, Ben Wizner, a staff attorney with the ACLU, who argued the case for the plaintiffs, said:

We are shocked and deeply disappointed that the Justice Department has chosen to continue the Bush administration's practice of dodging judicial scrutiny of extraordinary rendition and torture. This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course. Now we must hope that the court will assert its independence by rejecting the government's false claims of state secrets and allowing the victims of torture and rendition their day in court."

It should be noted that "state secrets" privilege has also been invoked to shield illegal government wiretapping operations. With the new occupant of the White House apparently eager to hide official misdeeds from prying eyes, you have to wonder just what he has in mind.

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The DIY rebuttal to gun control

The Obama administration is off to a good start on civil liberties when it comes to Guantanamo, reviving some hopes of due process and the possibility that arrest by federal agents will less frequently result in people dangling by their thumbs. President Obama is also making the right noises on medical marijuana. But gun owners are more than a bit concerned that their rights will be ridden over roughshod during the next few years. While there's no sure way of heading off government action, it is possible to evade and sabotage the enforcement of restrictive laws. Specifically, gun owners should continue to acquire and distribute the know-how for making their own guns.

Gun owners' concerns may well be justified; President Barack Obama has a history of hostility to private ownership of firearms and Attorney General Eric Holder went so far as to sign on to former Attorney General Janet Reno's amicus brief (PDF) in the case of D.C. v. Heller, opposing the position that the Supreme Court finally adopted: that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. There are already a couple of long-shot gun control measures circulating in Congress, including H.R. 45, a licensing and registration measure.

But laws are only as good as their enforceability -- a lesson that politicians need to take to heart in a country where 42.4% of the population has smoked illicitly cultivated grass decades after marijuana was outlawed, and where Prohibition was a moonshine-soaked failure. If self-defense-rights activists want to preserve their liberty, they need to continue battling in legislatures and the courts, but they should also take steps to make sure that gun laws are unenforceable -- that bans on firearms are countered by the equivalent of homebrew, moonshine and speakeasies.

This isn't exactly reinventing the wheel. Underground weapons manufacturing is a major business in places as far apart as the Philippines and Pakistan. offers a fascinating video tour of firearms and ammunition manufacturing and sales under remarkably crude conditions in the tribal areas of Pakistan. In the market there, gunsmiths turn out everything from muzzleloaders to hand-crafted Lewis guns and AK-47s in facilities less well-equipped than the average American home workshop.

So, where do you start? Well, you need plans, of course. You could copy an existing firearm, like those Pakistani craftsmen do, or like the World War II-era Polish resistance and pre-independence Israelis did when they churned out vast quantities of Sten guns. Or you could acquire plans purposely created for home manufacturing. Yes, they exist. And one of the better known sources for such plans is Philip A. Luty.

Probably the best endorsement for Luty's designs is that at least one of them works. We know it works because he went to prison in Britain for building a working copy from the design he published in the book, Expedient Homemade Firearms: The 9mm Submachine Gun. The book was written as a rejoinder to the British government's restrictive laws regarding firearms, and the powers-that-be didn't appreciate the rebuttal.

The time behind bars seems to have just ticked him off, since Luty, now free, is the proprietor of The Home Gunsmith Website, which offers several free plans for simple, improvised firearms. The site also offers plans for more complicated weapons for sale. And should the authorities get clever and decide to restrict ammunition ... well, Luty now offers a book for sale on how to improvise that, too.

It should be noted that, given Luty's ex-con status and the relatively close scrutiny under which he certainly operates these days, his more-recent designs have probably not been test-fired as diligently as the original. So, caveat emptor.

The point here isn't that setting up underground firearms bazaars is an adequate substitute for living with a government that knows its limits and respects our rights. It's that the means exist for rendering restrictive laws impotent and pointless. Short of turning your basement into a reproduction of the Ayalon Institute, the best use for simple gun plans may be to mail them to members of Congress as evidence that Americans are prepared to short-circuit their most draconian efforts. Imagine how much grief and blood could have been spared if pre-Prohibition legislators had been buried under such a weight of homebrew recipes that they'd conceded the point that a ban on alcoholic beverages was destined to fail.

Well, OK. Such an effort is unlikely to elicit rational thought in the minds of government officials. But it's a low-cost approach that just might have some effect. And the effort would help in developing and distributing effective plans that would ensure the ultimate failure of legal restrictions on the means for self defense.

Besides, it's just pretty nifty to have plans for building your own submachine gun.

Below, a video demonstration of a homemade .22-caliber pistol.


Monday, February 9, 2009

The culprit is fingered

Stanford University economist John B. Taylor has done some investigating, and he thinks he'd fingered a culprit in the financial crisis. From the Wall Street Journal:
Many are calling for a 9/11-type commission to investigate the financial crisis. Any such investigation should not rule out government itself as a major culprit. My research shows that government actions and interventions -- not any inherent failure or instability of the private economy -- caused, prolonged and dramatically worsened the crisis. ...

Monetary excesses were the main cause of the boom. The Fed held its target interest rate, especially in 2003-2005, well below known monetary guidelines that say what good policy should be based on historical experience. Keeping interest rates on the track that worked well in the past two decades, rather than keeping rates so low, would have prevented the boom and the bust. Researchers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have provided corroborating evidence from other countries: The greater the degree of monetary excess in a country, the larger was the housing boom.

The effects of the boom and bust were amplified by several complicating factors including the use of subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, which led to excessive risk taking. There is also evidence the excessive risk taking was encouraged by the excessively low interest rates. Delinquency rates and foreclosure rates are inversely related to housing price inflation. These rates declined rapidly during the years housing prices rose rapidly, likely throwing mortgage underwriting programs off track and misleading many people.

Adjustable-rate, subprime and other mortgages were packed into mortgage-backed securities of great complexity. Rating agencies underestimated the risk of these securities, either because of a lack of competition, poor accountability, or most likely the inherent difficulty in assessing risk due to the complexity.

Other government actions were at play: The government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were encouraged to expand and buy mortgage-backed securities, including those formed with the risky subprime mortgages.

Government action also helped prolong the crisis. Consider that the financial crisis became acute on Aug. 9 and 10, 2007, when money-market interest rates rose dramatically. Interest rate spreads, such as the difference between three-month and overnight interbank loans, jumped to unprecedented levels.
But, of course, the people who got us into this mess are well-equipped to get us out.

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My appearance on the Jeff Farias show

On February 4, I spent a very enjoyable several minutes chatting with liberal radio host Jeff Farias on his (currently Webcast-only) show carried on the Roots-Up Radio network. We spoke about the perverse effects of unenforceable laws and the growth of the surveillance society. My segment kicks in at about the 59:30 mark.


Marc Faber calls the stimulus package a path to third-world status

Swiss-born economist and investment adviser Marc Faber, best-known as a contrarian and pessimist with a pretty good track record when it comes to predicting economic downturns, suggests that the U.S. government is turning to Robert Mugabe for economic advice. In an interview with CNBC, Faber got just a tad bearish on U.S. prospects.

"We have different economic schools. We have the Austrian school, the school of rational expectations, the monetary school and so forth. In the U.S., we have a totally new school, and it’s called the Zimbabwe school. And it’s founded by one of the great leaders of this world, Mr. Robert Mugabe, that has managed to totally impoverish his own country. And that is the monetary policy the U.S. is pursuing.

If something goes wrong, print. If it doesn't get fixed, print more. If it then goes even worse, print more."


So, why were you taking those painkillers last year?

Have you ever taken any prescription drugs I should know about? Let me rephrase that. Have you ever taken any prescription drugs that you think are none of my business or anybody else's, for that matter? It's all the same, if you live in a state like Arizona, where Big Brother is monitoring your prescription history and keeping records of your medications stored in one handy, centralized database.

The Controlled Substances Prescription Monitoring Program was established by an act of the legislature, and went into effect this past December. It joins Arizona with 37 other states that have or are planning similar monitoring programs. The text of the law is rather brief, creating "a computerized central database tracking system to track the prescribing, dispensing and consumption of schedule II, III and IV controlled substances" for the purposes of assisting "law enforcement to identify illegal activity" and to "[p]rovide information to patients, medical practitioners and pharmacists to help avoid the inappropriate use of schedule II, III and IV controlled substances."

Well, isn't that nice and helpful.

The rules (PDF) created by the Arizona State Board of Pharmacy are more detailed. Of particular interest, the rules allow access to the database to:

  1. A person who is authorized to prescribe or dispense a controlled substance to assist that person to provide medical or pharmaceutical care to a patient or to evaluate a patient;
  2. An individual who requests the individual's own controlled substance prescription information under A.R.S. § 12-2293;
  3. A professional licensing board established under A.R.S. Title 32, Chapter 7, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 25, or 26. Except as required under subsection (B), the Board or its designee shall provide this information only if the requesting board states in writing that the information is necessary for an open investigation or complaint;
  4. A local, state, or federal law enforcement or criminal justice agency. Except as required under subsection (B), the Board or its designee shall provide this information only if the requesting agency states in writing that the information is necessary for an open investigation or complaint;
  5. The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System [Medicaid] Administration regarding individuals who are receiving services under A.R.S. Title 36, Chapter 29. Except as required under subsection (B), the Board or its designee shall provide this information only if the Administration states in writing that the information is necessary for an open investigation or complaint;
  6. A person serving a lawful order of a court of competent jurisdiction; and
  7. The Board staff for purposes of administration and enforcement of A.R.S. § Title 36, Chapter 28 and this Article.

Am I the only one who thinks that's an awful lot of people to have poking through people's medication records? Note that access for law enforcement isn't conditional on a warrant, but only requires a written request stating that the information "is necessary for an open investigation or complaint." Uh huh. Don't tick off your neighbor, the state trooper.

And professional licensing boards have access to prescription information too. The specified professional boards with authority to leaf through your medication history include those regulating: podiatrists; dentists; traditional, osteopathic and naturopathic (but not homeopathic) physicians; nurses; optometrists; pharmacists; veterinarians; physician assistants; and security guards.

A "lawful order of a court of competent jurisdiction" could be just about anything -- including your ex-wife or husband taking a stab at revisiting your child custody rights. It could also be just about any fishing expedition related to a lawsuit.

And all of this is authorized access at the outset of the program. We can assume there will be pressure to expand access as the years go by -- the temptation to do so will be like ... well ... the bureaucratic equivalent of an addiction. And we can assume that some government employees will abuse access out of curiosity or for personal gain -- like the IRS agent who was sentenced to probation last year for snooping through the tax records of nearly 200 people, including celebrities. That was only the latest example of a problem (PDF) so pervasive at the IRS that it involved congressional hearings a decade ago -- which obviously didn't change anything.

Why would a centralized database of people's prescription history be any more immune to abuse than our frequently browsed tax records?

And make no mistake about it -- those records are sensitive. Schedule II drugs include drugs such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, schedule III includes testosterone and anabolic steroids, and schedule IV includes Librium, Valium and Ambien. There are perfectly good reasons for taking any or all of the affected drugs, but do you really want to have to explain those reasons to a licensing board, or a court -- or a journalist?

Oddly enough, for a program supposedly intended to combat "the inappropriate use" of controlled substances, the creation of the centralized medications database may be the best reason anybody could ever have for buying their drugs on the street.

Here's a thought: How about we take the government entirely out of the loop when it comes to acquiring and using the medications we want or need?

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Smokin' law enforcement

Law-enforcement officers often claim that violent, paramilitary raids are necessary even in cases involving non-violent activity because you don't want suspects disposing of evidence after they hear a polite knock on the door. Nothing ruins a good case like 32 pounds of marijuana flushed down the toilet (but will the plumbing ever be the same?).

But what if the SWAT team manages, by its own tactics, to destroy pretty much every scrap of evidence in the case? What do I mean? Try this San Antonio drug raid on for size:

An East Side house was almost destroyed by fire after police used a "flash-bang" device when executing a high-risk narcotics warrant Tuesday night.

San Antonio Police Sgt. Gabe Trevino said the department's ROP Unit along with SWAT was serving a narcotics warrant around 9:30 p.m. at a residence in the 100 block of Belmont when the fire started.

Police had been called to the house repeatedly in the past, Trevino said.

Before officers entered the home they used what is called by police as a "flash bang" device which is thrown into an area, makes a loud bang, and disorients people who may be nearby. The device has been used "hundreds of times" without incident, Trevino said.

However, the device landed on a mattress causing it to catch fire, Trevino said. The officers tried to extinguish the fire with two fire extinguishers and a fire hose as the San Antonio Fire Department reached the address.

The kicker, of course, is that, "It was not known if any traces of narcotics, which may or may not have been in the house, were left."

Oh, it'll be a hot time in the old evidence locker tonight.

Especially if the "narcotics" are marijuana, and they're still smoldering.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

We're not paying for that stimulus scam

I'm not the only one asking Americans to put lenders on warning that if they feed the U.S. government's nasty spending habit, they're on their own -- we won't pay them back. There's a new Website devoted to the same message: Repudiate The Debt. The site's slogan is, "you didn't rack up that bill -- the politicians in Washington did."

The new group s also represented on Facebook, where it already has 285 members as of this today.

C'mon, folks. We can screw up the federal government's credit rating and cut off the flow of cash if we really try.


Civilians who shoot cops treated just a tad more harshly than cops who shoot civilians

In Chesapeake, Virginia, Ryan Frederick was convicted by a jury of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of a burglar who was breaking down his door. It could have been worse; Frederick faced capital murder charges in the case, since the burglar was Jarrod Shivers, a police detective who was participating in a misfired marijuana raid on Frederick's home. But it also could have been better. Frederick could have received the same slap on the wrist that police officers usually get for killing innocent people during SWAT raids gone wrong.

The case has been mired in controversy since the beginning. The raid was apparently sparked by a report from a freelance burglar who had earlier broken into Frederick's residence during the course of his work as a police informant who served as Fourth Amendment-evading eyes and ears for local law-enforcement.

That burglar reported seeing marijuana plants growing in Frederick's home. In fact, while the resident apparently did grow a few illegal plants at one time for his own use, the crop the burglar spotted appears to have been an unrelated and perfectly legal plant -- at least, police found only a small baggie of grass when they raided the place.

And raid they did. Ryan Frederick was in bed when he heard his door being knocked down. Fearing a return of the earlier burglars, he retrieved a gun and opened fire on his assailants, killing Shivers. During the trial, Frederick's neighbors testified that police made no audible announcement of their law-enforcement status, giving the man inside no warning of who he faced.

For his act of self defense, Frederick was convicted of voluntary manslaughter by a jury, which rejected stiffer charges, but also recommended a maximum sentence of ten years.

It's impossible to treat this incident outside the context of similar violent, paramilitary raids, which have resulted in dead people, dead pets, terrorized familes and growing divisions between good people and the law-enforcement officers who use such tactics. In the past few days, I've heard from Anita Culosi, whose son Salvatore, an optometrist, was gunned down by police in Fairfax County, Virginia, in the course of a SWAT raid over alleged sports gambing. I've also heard from Cheye Calvo, Mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, whose two dogs were killed during a misfired SWAT raid on his home.

Both Culosi and Calvo are pursuing justice in their respective cases, as well as reforms to ensure that nobody else has to go through what they've suffered.

Which brings us back to Ryan Frederick. Frederick was lucky; unlike Salvatore Culosi, he survived the ordeal. But whereas Officer Deval Bullock was suspended for three weeks without pay for killing Culosi -- a penalty many of his fellow officers found too harsh -- Frederick will likely spend years in prison for killing Shivers.

Treat people as if they're the equals of police officers? What a radical idea.

Here's a more radical idea: Curtail the use of D-Day-style SWAT raids for the enforcement of laws against nonviolent activity.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How long before this is a big business in Tijuana?

In an astonishing display of the vulnerability of modern identification technology, Chris Paget, an "ethical hacker," assembled $250 worth of electronic equipment that allowed him to scan and copy the information stored on radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips embedded in new passport cards (but not the traditional passport books), as well as in some enhanced drivers' licenses, while he drove around San Francisco. According to Paget, whose 20-minute experiment was captured on video by The Register, it would be "trivial to program" blank tags with the skimmed identification numbers -- a key part of the process of creating counterfeit cards.

Paget was able to scan passport cards from a moving car since the embedded RFID chips broadcast their information. This is a feature the State Department advertises as a convenience, saying, "With RFID technology, Customs and Border Protection inspectors will be able to access photographs and other biographical information stored in secure government databases before the traveler reaches the inspection station."

The State Department emphasizes that the passport card contains no sensitive data itself, only "a unique number linking the card to a secure database maintained by DHS and State." You need to have access to that database to pull up more information using the identifying number.

The State Department also issues sleeves with the passport cards that block their transmissions. That the sleeves are not universally used is evidenced by the two passport cards Paget scanned during his brief drive.

Paget also points out:

If you combine the reader that I've got, at a chokepoint like a doorway, with another kind of RFID reader, one that reads credit cards say, you can correlate the ID number that you get from the passport card with the identity that you can retrieve from the credit cards. So instead of just tracking a passport card around the city, you can then track an actual identity around the city."

Similar RFIDs are beginning to appear in enhanced drivers' licenses, such as those issued by Washington State. As they become pervasive, it's possible that such identification could make it possible for police to determine the identities of attendees at, for instance, demonstrations and rallies simply by scanning the crowd and cross-referencing the skimmed identifying numbers with relevant databases.

RFID-embedded ID could also exacerbate concerns about anonymous travel that have already been raised by electronic toll-paying systems like FasTrak and E-ZPass. Travel patterns recorded by the toll systems have become something of a hot commodity in divorce cases and criminal investigations. Putting a traceable RFID in every pocket has the potential to make everybody a blip on somebody's radar screen.

Of course, Paget's experiment raises the likelihood that some of those blips won't be who they claim to be.

Below is the video of Chris Paget's RFID-skimming experiment.

Last year, a joint research project by the University of Washington and RSA Labs uncovered exactly the sort of vulnerabilities in passport cards and enhanced drivers' licenses that were exploited in Paget's experiment. A FAQ for that effort states:

The major risk, in our view, is that of clandestine device cloning. An attacker can in principle harvest the data from a Passport Card or EDL and create an identity document that transmits identical information (even if it does not appear identical upon inspection). If border control agents do not exercise sufficient vigilance in the passenger screening process, e.g., physical inspection of all cards, the result could be a heightened risk of passenger impersonation.

That risk appears to remain in place.

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Maybe shooting a politician's dogs isn't such a great idea

The excruciating, blood-soaked ordeal suffered last summer by Cheye Calvo, his wife, Trinity Tomsic, and Trinity's mother, Georgia Porter at the hands of out-of-control law-enforcement officers received the in-depth treatment it deserves this past Sunday in the Washington Post. If April Witt's story of an utterly pointless marijuana raid that resulted in the deaths of two dogs doesn't make your blood boil, you're either bloodless, or part of the problem of paramilitary law-enforcement. But will this be the case that finally convinces Americans the problem needs to be addressed before matters get even worse?

Without going into detail -- the Washington Post story does that, and you need to read it -- Calvo was targeted because Prince George's County police had intercepted a box of marijuana addressed to his home. Even though police knew that smugglers often pick addresses at random, intending to divert the shipment before it ever arrives, they used the marijuana -- which would have been a non-violent transgression even if it belonged to Calvo -- as a pretext for a violent raid. Calvo's dogs, Payton and Chase, were killed and his family terrorized before county police -- who never checked with their local counterparts -- conceded that they might have made an error.

Calvo's story isn't unique. People have been terrorized, injured and killed in similar raids across the country. Salvatore Culosi was killed during a SWAT raid over sports gambling, Ryan Frederick is about to discover his fate after fatally shooting a police officer in a panic as people who turned out to be police broke down his door while investigating charges that he was growing marijuana. Ninety-two-year-old Kathryn Johnston was murdered by uniformed raiders who planted drugs in her house after the fact to conceal their error. All too many cases like this were documented in Radley Balko's book, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America. The Cato Institute maintains an interactive map of similar incidents on the Web.

But Cheye Calvo is the mayor of his town of Berwyn Heights, he's squeaky clean, an extremely able public speaker who is fighting mad over the incident, and the raid occurred almost within spitting distance of the nation's capital, within the orbit of major media. So Cheye Calvo is, for the moment, the poster child for reforming law-enforcement tactics.

And reform is needed. Take, for example, this account of the initial moments of the raid from Witt's story.

It was past 7 p.m., but late sun still streamed through the large kitchen window as Georgia stood at the stove stirring her simmering tomato-artichoke sauce. Georgia turned, catching a glimpse of something out the window that sent a jolt of fear through her. Hooded, armed men, dressed in black, were fanning across the back yard. Still more men, crouching low, moved around the side of the house. Georgia's mind raced to make sense of the strange tableau. Was someone playing an elaborate practical joke?

One of the men spotted Georgia gaping out the window. He lifted his high-powered assault rifle and pointed it directly at her, she recalled. Georgia -- still clutching her wooden spoon -- threw both hands up in the air and screamed. "Cheye, I think it's SWAT!"

Cheye was sitting on the edge of his bed in his boxers. He was just about to put on his black dress socks, when he heard Georgia scream something that made absolutely no sense. He looked out a bedroom window to see armed, masked men running. He was still wondering if they were home invaders when he heard his front door shatter.

In the kitchen, Georgia spun to face the sound of the splintering door. Men in black burst through the front door and into the living room.

Georgia stood trembling in front of the kitchen stove. Payton, who had been stretched out in a corner of the living room farthest from the front door, his head resting near the threshold to the kitchen "turned toward the front door when I turned," Georgia recalled. "He didn't have time to do anything else." Almost instantly, men in black ran forward and shot Payton in the face, Georgia said. "They kept shooting," she recalled. "I didn't know how many times they shot Payton because there was so much gunfire."

"Down on the ground!" Georgia recalled someone screaming at her. She was too terrified to move.

Chase, always timid even when there was nothing to fear, did what he did best -- he ran. He ran away from the men in black, zipped past Georgia at the stove, Georgia recalled. The screaming, running men followed Chase, shooting as he tried escaping into the dining room, Georgia said. She watched in horror as men in black rushed the dining room from all directions. "I could hear Chase whimpering," Georgia said. Then she heard someone shoot at Chase again, she said.

Note that this raid took place during an investigation into the smuggling of 32 pounds of marijuana. There's no suspicion of crimes against people or property. There's no talk of the threats against police or the presence of weapons. Yet police stormed in like it was D-Day with guns blazing. Beloved animals died. People could have died, as they have elsewhere.

Is it that hard to knock on the door, which is still, in this country, supposed to be the default means of serving search warrants?

Apparently it is. In many places in the country, including Prince George's County, most drug warrants are served with a sound of splintering wood and a rush of armed and armored members of SWAT. Is it any surpise that the practice comes with a body count?

The natural reaction for many innocent people, when they are under attack, is to fight back. Kathryn Johnston opened fire, so did Ryan Frederick, so did Vang Khang, and so did Cory Maye. All too often, police point to these incidents of people resisting armed assault as further evidence that SWAT needs to be deployed for every interaction with the public.

But here's the unpleasant truth: People have the moral right to defend themselves against violent attack, even if their attackers are wearing uniforms. The level of force used in these raid is unjustifiable, and the potential for injury or death at the hands of the raiders is all too real. There is no moral obligation on anybody's part, no matter what the law says, to submit to brutal treatment. It would have been unwise for Cheye Calvo to shoot police officers as they stormed into his home, but he would have been perfectly justified in doing so.

And if his neighors, seeing his distress, had rallied to his support with shotguns in hand, they would have been in the right, too.

A badge is not, and cannot be, a license to abuse and kill. If the law says otherwise, than the law becomes illegitimate. Really. The natural right to protect yourself and your loved ones trumps any vote ever taken by a legislative body.

It doesn't need to come to this. People shouldn't have to rely on the gun in the nightstand as a deterrent against those who are supposed to be protectors.

One of the people who came to Calvo's assistance during and after the raid was Berwyn Heights Officer Amir Johnson. Troubled by what he saw, he parked himself in the middle, saying, "I wanted to personally witness what is going to happen to my mayor, so if they try to say this guy went for a gun -- and he didn't -- it's not going to happen on my watch."

Even the police know the situation is out of control, and the good ones are starting to keep at least an occasional watch on the stormtroopers.

But an Officer Johnson here and there won't keep peaceful people's doors on their hinges, or keep humans and animals from ending up in pools of their own blood. That will have to come from a change in policy and culture at the nation's police departments.

Police and politicians can do that on their own, or they can wait for the day when the neighbors of a future Cheye Calvo take matters into their own hands.

In the video below, Cheye Calvo tells his own story.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Yes, this really is what it's like ...

John Hasnas, an associate professor in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, accurately captures what it's like to be a libertarian. Some excerpts below (but read the whole thing):

Political analysts frequently consider what it means to be a libertarian. In fact, in 1997, Charles Murray published a short book entitled "What It Means to Be a Libertarian" that does an excellent job of presenting the core principles of libertarian political philosophy. But almost no one ever discusses what it feels like to be a libertarian. How does it actually feel to be someone who holds the principles described in Murray’s book?

I’ll tell you. It feels bad. Being a libertarian means living with a level of frustration that is nearly beyond human endurance. It means being subject to unending scorn and derision despite being inevitably proven correct by events. How does it feel to be a libertarian? Imagine what the internal life of Cassandra must have been and you will have a pretty good idea.

Imagine spending two decades warning that government policy is leading to a major economic collapse, and then, when the collapse comes, watching the world conclude that markets do not work. ...

I remember attending a lecture at Georgetown in the mid-1990s given by a member of the libertarian Cato Institute in which he predicted that, unless changed, government policy would trigger an economic crisis by 2006. That prediction was obviously ideologically-motivated alarmism. After all, the crisis did not occur until 2008. ...

It is human nature to want to shoot the messenger bearing unwelcome tidings. And so, for the sin of continually pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, libertarians are attacked as heartless bastards devoid of compassion for the less fortunate, despicable flacks for the rich or for business interests, unthinking dogmatists who place blind faith in the free market, or, at best, members of the lunatic fringe.

Cassandra’s curse was to always tell the truth about the future, but never be believed. If you add to that curse that she would be ridiculed, derided, and shunned for making her predictions, you have a pretty fair approximation of what it feels like to be a libertarian. ...

We'll be right about the fatal flaws of current policy, too. And then watch as the world concludes that somehow we're at fault.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Fiscal responsibility in Arizona? How in Hell did that happen?

I'm not talking about the federal government, of course. Restrained spending at the federal level is a pipe dream -- something to be imagined only after a night out with Michael Phelps. But Arizona ... Janet Napolitano is barely out the door and suddenly our state government is trying to live within its means.
With the $1.6 billion budget deficit now erased, the governor and legislative leaders are warning that more cuts may be needed.

"Additional fixes are very likely to be required for the fiscal year 2009 budget, and even more difficult decisions remain as we confront the realities of a $3.4 billion deficit for fiscal year 2010," Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement issued minutes after the Legislature finalized budget cuts early Saturday.

Brewer made the action official when she signed the six-bill package later that morning. They were the first bills she's signed in her 10-day tenure, and they contained some of the biggest cuts the state has seen: nearly $300 million to education, more than $90 million in various welfare and social-service programs, and $22 million in prisons.
The usual suspects are bleating about the budget cuts, particularly the reduced funds to the state indoctrination camps ... err ... government-run schools. OK, plenty of people have favorite programs -- things they'd really like to spend money on. But here's a question: With revenues plummeting, after years of unrealistic hikes in state spending, where do you plan to get the cash? Even if you don't believe in small government, "big three" (individual income tax, corporate income tax and transaction privilege, severance and use tax) net tax collections were $454,684,879 in November 2008 (PDF), down from $541,856,026 in November 2007 (PDF), which was down from $574,128,464 in November 2006 (PDF).

Meanwhile, budgets have been out of control, with red ink threatening to drown the state.

It doesn't matter how important you think any given program is if the money to pay for it doesn't fucking exist. You are either going to make deep cuts, or we're going to take sharp objects away from you and send you off with the finger paints.

And the fact is, the cuts haven't yet gone deep enough.

After a multi-year spending spree, relearning self-control is hard. Hard or not, we have to do it, because we have no choice.


Spark it up, Michael Phelps

In a perfect world, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps would respond to the publication in the News of the World of a photo of him smoking from a bong with a loud call for drug legalization. Can you see the quote: "Hey, if I can win 14 gold medals while smoking grass, how bad can it be?"

I know that's unrealistic. Sure, there are some athletes, like former NFL lineman Mark Stepnoski, who have made a name for themselves as advocates of legalization. But Stepnoski was a pro who, presumably, banked his paydays and can now thumb his nose at the drug warriors. Phelps is enjoying his paydays now through endorsement contracts with a host of companies that are potentially skittish about being associated with marijuana in even the most minor way. For Phelps to take on a controversial cause now would be to trade away his earnings.

But what a spokesman Michael Phelps would make. A top-notch athlete who dominates his chosen sport -- clearly suffering few, if any, ill effects from the recreational use of an intoxicant that just happens to be out of favor with the current gang of powers-that-be. He would be a powerful example that moderate use of marijuana and other for-the-moment illegal intoxicants can be harmless -- and even beneficial.

Maybe Phelps could testify to marijuana's power to lower tension, reduce stress and really help him achieve his goals.

Of course, in a truly ideal world, Phelps wouldn't have to worry about sponsorships. That photo in News of the World would have had big marijuana companies clamoring for his endorsement.

And a few cocaine outfits courting his favor, too.


Sex offender registries aren't just destructive, they're unreliable crap

Much has been written -- for good reason -- about the tragic cases of people whose lives have been ruined by being classified and registered as "sex offenders" for consensual youthful liaisons with partners just a few months younger than the law allows. But is this the price we pay for immunizing ourselves against the real predators: rapists and adults who stalk actual children? A recent federal report suggests that the answer is "no." As efficient as the system is at registering youthful lovers, it's just that inefficient at tracking actual criminals.

Genarlow Wilson famously served over two years of a ten-year sentence for having consensual oral sex with a girl two years his junior when he was 17. His sentence was ultimately overturned as cruel and unusual, but many people across the country still face registration and harsh restrictions for similar "transgressions." As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialized:

But Wilson is not the only young offender caught in a maze of draconian sex laws. Many young people are trapped on the state sex offender registry for nonviolent and consensual sex acts as teens.

The registry is a prison sentence in its own right, fencing even low-risk offenders off from most of society. Georgia law bars offenders from living or loitering within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, parks, rec centers or skating rinks. Last year, the General Assembly added churches, swimming pools and school bus stops to the list, and, for the first time, placed limits on where offenders could work. Now, sex offenders can't hold jobs near schools, child care centers or churches.

Some states have now moved to pass "Romeo and Juliet" laws to ease the consequences for young people who fall afoul of arbitrary age cut-offs, but people still remain on sex offender registries, with all that entails, for petty reasons. The harsh, often life-long restrictions of the sex-offender registries are supposed to buy us some security, even if a few innocent people get ground up in the machinery from time to time. So, how much security are we getting from those registries?

Not so much, say the feds. According to a report (PDF) from the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Justice:

We found that the registries that make up the national sex offender registration system – the FBI’s National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR) and the state public sex offender registries accessed through OJP’s National Sex Offender Public Registry Website (NSOPR) – are inaccurate and incomplete. As a result, neither law enforcement officials nor the public can rely on the registries for identifying registered sex offenders, particularly those who are fugitives.

Specifically, the states have not entered records on approximately 22 percent of their registered sex offenders into NSOR and have not identified sex offenders who have failed to maintain a current registration. We also found that states do not consistently enter information into NSOR such as social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and vehicle identification numbers.

The NSOR is a centralized federal database of sex offenders available for use by law-enforcement agencies, whilet he NSOPR is a publicly available portal that searches state databases. Separately maintained, they're equally unreliable.

The not-even-good-enough-for-government-work status of the sex offender registries as of the beginning of 2009 is especially relevant because the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act requires all U.S. states, territories and tribes to have functioning, accurate and accessible registries by July 27, 2009 -- just a few months away. The registries are to be used to track offenders and to prosecute people convicted of sex crimes who fail to register or to keep their registration current if they move from one state to another or even from one address to another within a state. Inaccurate registries mean a hobbled ability to track offenders.

It could also, potentially, mean legal liability for those who do comply with the law but whose records spiraled into some black hole in the system. Bureaucratic incompetence could end up resulting in prison time for people who have made every attempt to keep their noses clean and their registrations current. Some of those people will be "criminals" whose crimes consisted of sleeping, as teenagers, with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Others will be people who committed real crimes but are trying to get their lives together.

Either way, public safety isn't being enhanced in any obvious way by the sex-offender registration system.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Student bloggers might actually get a taste of free speech in Connecticut

Across the country, students in public high schools have discovered, to their dismay, that the First Amendment that's supposed to restrict government action apparently doesn't protect comments they make on the Internet while at home from punishment by school officials. Suspended, detained, or otherwise punished, students say their right to free speech beyond school officials' jurisdiction is being violated. A Connecticut legislator agrees and wants to ensure that students' right to speak their minds online is protected.

Avery Doninger, a high school student in Burlington, Connecticut, was barred from serving on the student council after referring to school administrators as "douchebags" on her personal blog. Robert Afnani, of Langley High School, in Virginia, was told to shut down his home-based proxy server or face suspension (public pressure forced school officials to back off). Justin Layshock, a Pennsylvania high school student, was suspended and transferred to an alternative education program for parodying a school official on Myspace. Wesley Juhl, a Nevada high school student, was suspended for making blog comments about a classmate and a teacher from his home computer. At least one school district, Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128 in northern Illinois, has formally adopted a policy threatening students with consequences for material they post on the Internet during their own time.

Punishment of students for material they post online on their own time, off school grounds, is so common that the Electronic Frontier Foundation maintains a section of its Website devoted to the problem. The Student Press Law Center has also addressed the issue.

Courts are split on the issue. Working from a line of reasoning established by Tinker, a landmark decision regarding students' First Amendment protections, some courts have held that off-campus speech is beyond the reach (PDF) of public school officials unless it's threatening or otherwise disruptive to the school.

But in the case involving Avery Doninger, mentioned above, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit gave school officials wide discretion to punish vulgar, but non-threatening speech by a student even though it took place after school hours and off school grounds. The court's reasoning was that Doninger's blog should be treated as on-campus speech because "the blog was related to school issues, and it was reasonably foreseeable that other LMHS students would view the blog and that school administrators would become aware of it." They further reasoned that her choice of words could cause "foreseeable risk of substantial disruption" -- as a result of hurt feelings, apparently. That decision, issued just last year, would seem to empower at least one set of government employees to punish expression critical of those officials.

That's a powerful lesson in the consequences of speaking out for inmates of the public schools.

Until the U.S. Supreme Court decides to address the issue, hopefully extending the First Amendment to public school students, any solution will have to come through legislation. Connecticut State Senator Gary LeBeau has stepped forward to do just that. The legislation he proposes is simple, saying only:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Assembly convened:

That sections 10-233c and 10-233d of the general statutes be amended to prohibit school authorities from punishing students for the content of electronic correspondence transmitted outside of school facilities or with school equipment, provided such content is not a threat to students, personnel or the school.

Just a few words that would reaffirm the protections the First Amendment already seems to offer to free speech.

LeBeau's bill, assuming it passes, would apply only to Connecticut, of course. But that would mean the students of one state would be a little more certain in the exercise of their free speech rights.